How absolute power created Arab despots

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am


When I was in school I used to wonder who Gloria Mundi was and how she had died, but it turned out to be my defective Latin. Sic transit gloria mundi means 'Thus passes the glory of this world.' But still, it kind of fits, doesn't it? Sic transit Muammar Gaddafi.

Being Gaddafi must have been a bit like being Mick Jagger. You've been playing the same role since you were very young, and everybody loves you for it, at least to your face. You have actually become the standard by which all others aspiring to the same role are judged. And, after a while, you start to believe that you really are Mick Jagger, and not just that guy from Dartford who can sing pretty well.

I'm not denying that there were differences between the two men. To the best of my knowledge, Jagger never ordered anybody to be killed. Jagger also has better taste in clothes.

Am I being insufficiently serious here? Should I not be condemning Gaddafi's crimes, lamenting the fact that he will never stand trial for them and speculating on Libya's future after 42 years of one-man rule?

What would be the point? Hundreds of other columnists are writing that, and none of them knows any more about Libya's future than I do. The interesting question is this: would Gaddafi have ended up as a delusional egomaniac and a mass murderer if he had not had absolute power over an entire country for his whole adult life? The answer is almost certainly 'no'. Power that made him that way.

Contemporary reports portray Gaddafi as an intensely serious young man, charming when he needed to be but dedicated full-time to the 'Arab cause'. It's a profile that he shared with millions of other young idealists in the Arab world. So how did he end up as a dangerous but ridiculous monster? Those millions of others didn't.

Lord Acton said it 120 years ago: 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.' By implication, he is saying that Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, and other mass murderers who have tormented the Arab world for decades, were shaped more by circumstances than some intrinsic evil in their character.

If Acton was right, then countries where the rule of law prevails and civil society is strong should not produce such despots, because they do not allow any individual to have absolute power. If that were always true, then Hitler could not have seized absolute power, but it is usually true.

So the remedy is obvious, in the newly free Arab countries and elsewhere, too. Democracy is good, but you also have to build strong civil institutions and an independent judiciary. It's just a lot easier said than done.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist